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Finding my Father: Sue Schlesman's Testimony of Loss, Grief, and Recognizing God's Presence

Sue Schlesman minimized her grief and developed a distorted view of God as detached, but a chance click on an online video ultimately led her to learn how God was walking with her and drawing her to Him every step of the way.
My first memory consists of me playing on the floor with my older brother and a faceless form. It’s the only recollection I have of my dad.

Just a few months after my second birthday, my father died. A 33-year-old officer and navigator, he was on a U.S. Naval Air Force training mission when his plane went down in Southern California’s Santa Ana Mountains.

U.S. Navy officials sealed the records. I never knew the cause, only that the weather was bad and navigational equipment on the P-2 Neptune aircraft sometimes malfunctioned.

To cope with my father’s absence while growing up, I discounted the personal impact of his death. I told myself it didn’t affect me since I barely remembered him.

Yet I spent my childhood trying to piece together fragmented information from the people who did remember. I learned to tiptoe around my family’s grief — knowing when to ask questions and when to change the subject because the discussion was making someone sad.

Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, it seemed Christians seldom addressed grief or validated loss. Spiritual people went to Wednesday night prayer meetings and made requests for other people’s problems. Nobody I knew saw counselors or therapists. We hurt in secret and smiled in public.

By minimizing grief, I developed a distorted view of God as a loving but absent Father. I found Scripture’s fatherhood analogy well-intentioned but unfair and impractical. I pictured God looking down on my family from heaven, detached from our fatherless, widowed existence.

About 15 years ago, early-onset dementia began taking my mother from me, memory by memory. While navigating this loss, I experienced renewed longing for my father. For the first time, I recognized the unhealed grief in my spirit.

Around that time, I was researching veterans’ benefits online when I happened to click on a video about a nonprofit organization called Project Remembrance.

In the clip, a family was visiting the crash site of a P-2 Neptune aircraft. A forest fire in the Santa Ana Mountains had uncovered plane wreckage from 40 years earlier. I recognized the name of the family’s relative. It was the pilot from my father’s crew, who had perished along with him.

I immediately contacted the founder of Project Remembrance, Pat Macha. A self-taught aviation archeologist, Macha’s mission was researching plane crashes, recovering missing aircraft, and connecting victims’ families with the information necessary to provide closure.

Macha had hiked to my dad’s crash site multiple times. As a teenager, he had seen a fireball rise from Modjeska Canyon while standing in his yard on Feb. 11, 1969, the night my dad died.

After retiring, Macha researched the crash extensively. He talked to air traffic controllers and searched the newly unsealed Navy records. He documented hundreds of pieces of my father’s aircraft that still littered the mountains and valleys near Macha’s home.

My father’s death wasn’t a secret. My sorrow didn’t need to be, either.

Forty-three years after the crash, my husband and I flew to California. We met Macha’s team and hiked with them into the ravines where the plane’s wreckage was scattered.

As I stood at the point of impact, I could almost hear the pilot’s mayday signal piercing the radio static. I imagined my dad thinking of me during his final breath.

On the canyon floor, I sat in a crew seat, fully intact among the remaining debris. I left a memorial to my dad there. I honored the seven airmen, seven widows, and 29 fatherless children, including myself. I acknowledged their sacrifice and resilience.

Most importantly, in that sacred place, I sensed my Heavenly Father’s presence. And I realized He had been with me in my grief all along.

God wasn’t looking down on me from heaven. He was walking beside me.

The Lord knew me as a 2-year-old without a father. As I grew, He created in me a desire to know Him and find Him. I leaned into the holiness of that place and acknowledged God’s gifts of love and belonging.

Since that moment in the canyon, God has been teaching me to grieve, lament, and endure suffering with reality and hope. I no longer dismiss or ignore sorrow. I lean into it, process it, talk about it, and release it to Him.

I see a therapist regularly. And I choose to recognize God’s persistent presence throughout the shadowed valleys of my life.

Grieving well requires sitting in a holy space and listening for God’s voice of comfort. As Psalm 68:5 says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Influence magazine. Used with permission.

Sue Schlesman

Sue Schlesman is discipleship director at West End Assembly of God in Richmond, Virginia.